We met with Dr. Steven Pinker to discuss visual and auditory language, rationality, the common sense of society, and “kooky” theories.
Dr. Steven Pinker from Harvard University, studies the evolution of language in humans as a cognitive psychologist. Pinker is ranked among the top 5 most influential psychologists today. He explains how our brains perceive auditory as compared to visual language and why humans are able to read faster than they can talk. Over his career, Dr. Pinker has developed several influential theories within the field of psychology and recently wrote a book that discusses why our society seems to lack common sense. This is a hopeful explanation for the seeming increase in the stupidity of our time. Follow along as Harvard University Professor of Psychology, Dr. Steven Pinker talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
See Dr. Steven Pinker’s new book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters
Photo credit: Rose Lincoln / Harvard University
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Even very smart people can be very irrational in some ways. We have Nobel Prize winners who advanced all kinds of kooky theories.” – Dr. Steven Pinker
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence, and today we have Dr. Steven Pinker with us today.
And Dr. Pinker, I’ve always wondered the answer to this question, how can humans read so quickly that it’s faster than we could actually speak? And you’re a person who knows about visual cognition and stuff, so have you ever come across the reason for that?
Steven Pinker: Well, partly it’s because language is partly modular, it’s not just one ability. It’s not a reflex. Words in, understanding outer or vice versa during speaking, but there are several different components. There’s a component of the sometimes called phonology, which is the sound pattern of language, the accent, the pronunciation. There’s the mental lexicon or mental dictionary where we store our knowledge of what words mean. There are the rules of syntax that string words together in meaningful sentences, and they can operate separately from one another.
So in reading, we’re not using our phonology and phonetics component, the one that takes a wave form that goes into the ear and converts it into words, but we learn the ability to do it from squiggles on a page. But it ends up in the same place, namely our knowledge of English words and syntax and meaning. You don’t have to learn English all over again when you learn to read, you’re just learning another interface.
Jed: And that interface is somehow faster in our brain than coming through audio waves, is that what you’re saying?
It's faster simply because speech unfolds in time. You can only wiggle your tongue so fast. It's a piece of meat with non-zero mass.” – Dr. Steven Pinker
Steven: It’s faster simply because speech unfolds in time. You can only wiggle your tongue so fast. It’s a piece of meat with non-zero mass. Likewise, you wag your chin and you can’t do that as arbitrarily quickly. And language is spread out in time, limited by the articulators. Whereas shapes on a page, you can take in an entire word in a glance. The page is two-dimensional, so that’s an awful lot of information. The eye is two-dimensional, so it can take in a lot of information about the shape of a word, the individual letters making up a word, all get processed by our advanced visual system.
So it is another way of getting information into the brain, into the language centers that happens to be quicker than waiting for a sound wave to play out.
Jed: That makes a lot of sense. Well, thanks for telling us about that. And what is the sort of future for your research look like? What are some of the one or two questions that you wanna answer? You don’t have to say how you’re doing on them, just what are the questions that you’re looking to answer?
We did get to the moon, we invented vaccines, we figured out when the big bang was and what the genetic code was. So you can't just say we're a bunch of doofuses. How can one species be so smart and so wacky at the same time?” – Dr. Steven Pinker
Steven: I can’t help but talk about, my most recent book, just came out last week, called Rationality, where the subtitle is, What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. So the questions would be, What is rationality? Why does it seem scarce? That is why does it seem like the world is losing its mind. Why do we have so much fake news and conspiracy theories and medical quackery and paranormal woo-woo and ESP and all of the other kinds of nonsense that people believe in? Given that we’re not a stupid species. We did get to the moon, we invented vaccines, we figured out when the big bang was and what the genetic code was. So you can’t just say we’re a bunch of doofuses. How can one species be so smart and so wacky at the same time? That’s the question I try to answer in Rationality.
Jed: And because people are probably wondering whether they should click on the link to buy your book, which will be right by this video, what is a short answer? Where are you gonna go with that? Is it because there are a lot of people in the world that are not the ones that sent people to the moon and invented vaccines, and why is that?
Steven: Not exactly, because even very smart people can be very irrational in some ways. We have Nobel Prize winners who advanced all kinds of kooky theories. There are some Nobel Prize winners who believe in ESP, in wacky autism cures, in vitamin C as a cure for everything, have denied global warming. If you look at the whole range of Nobel Prize winners, an awful lot of them have some wacky beliefs. So you can be rational in one area and not so rational in some other area. So, I wrote a book to answer it, but there are a number of reasons, one of them is that our brain did not evolve to cope with the massive amount of data and statistical formulas that we now have available. It sometimes because we deploy rationality not to get to the truth, but to show how smart we are, how noble and correct our own political party is and how stupid and evil the other side is. And none of us is infallible, none of us is an angel. The only reason we have any rationality is that we get together in institutions like science, like democratic governance, like a responsible journalistic outlet and we collaborate with rules that make us more rational as a group than any one of us is individually.
Jed: Well that’s a good place to end. So let’s all work together, and that’ll eliminate some of the kookiness of our culture. [chuckle]
Steven: Let’s hope. My pleasure.
Jed: Thank you so much Professor Pinker, for spending the time with us.
Steven: Thanks for having me.